Coming from Julianna Smoot, the message was almost poignant: "I've worked for President Obama for almost five years," she wrote in a mass e-mail to supporters on June 16, "but I've never actually sat down for dinner with him." If true, that might be because she rarely sits down. A veteran Democratic operative who led Obama's fundraising operation in 2008, Smoot helped the campaign raise a record-breaking $745 million. She later took the job of White House social secretary, planning parties and state dinners. Now, as a deputy campaign manager for the President's 2012 re-elect, she may be headed toward a new fundraising record: a billion dollars. To get there, her boss will have to cozy up to the wealthy like never before. Since April, Obama has headlined 27 fundraisers around the country, where supporters paid as much as $35,800 each for some up-close time with the President.
Other than its sheer ambition, there is nothing unique about Obama's hunt for cash. All of the President's potential Republican rivals are racing around the country singing for their supper, too. But for the millions of less-well-off Americans whose small donations helped put Obama in the White House, "everybody's doing it" is a poor stand-in for "change you can believe in."
Now, thanks to Smoot's fundraising team, regular folks will have a chance, albeit a slim one, to break bread with a President. "I've set aside time for four supporters like you to join me for dinner," Obama "wrote" in an e-mail to supporters last week. It was a pitch for money, but with a twist. For the low, low price of $5, donors get a chance at one of the slots. Audaciously, the appeal also makes believe that Obama is all about the little guy. "Most campaigns fill their dinner guest lists primarily with Washington lobbyists and special interests. We didn't get here doing that, and we're not going to start now," the e-mail says. "I'm asking you to say you believe in the kind of politics that gives people like you a seat at the table—whether it's the dinner table with me or the table where decisions are made about what kind of country we want to be."
The discount dinner offer may be as much about getting names as money. In 2008, Hillary Clinton's campaign snickered when Obama began asking for small sums to attend his rallies and speeches. At least they did at first. Along with the entry fees, Obama's aides collected e-mail addresses of virtually every attendee at those massive events. Obama compiled a vast supporter list, which he tapped for money throughout the campaign. Those small donations added up. According to the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, 30 percent, or $121.2 million, of Obama's 2008 total individual contributions of $409 million came from donors who gave $200 or less. Clinton, in contrast, received 22 percent, or $42.5 million, of her total cash from small donors. For Republican John McCain, the figure was $42.2 million, or 21 percent.
Even so, Obama's folksy appeal may wind up doing the opposite of what it intended by starkly illustrating where regular folks sit in the political food chain. If you've got tens of thousands of dollars to spare, you can very easily buy face time with the President of the United States. Anything less, you're looking at a raffle ticket.
The bottom line: As he raises vast sums from wealthy supporters, Obama is working to keep the devotion of millions of small donors who helped him in 2008.